The Real Book of the Dead

These days cremations are popular. But before they became acceptable, the dead were buried. Now, if we understand that in years gone by, London was made up of villages or particular areas with their own church and graveyard. These obviously still exist, but stay with me. Today, we not only have cremations but there are very large cemeteries on the outskirts of London. They were built because the church ones had become overcrowded.

    This all makes sense but these new cemeteries were only built a hundred or so years ago and people had been dying in London, as elsewhere, for over two thousand years. Surely, the small church graveyards would have become full many times only? True, but what did they do about it?

    There was a very practical method in using up a graveyard. You started at one end and moved across until it was full. Then you went back to the first burials and began interring the latest customers. But surely they didn’t mix up the bodies, you may ask? They didn’t. It is important to note that it is only relatively recently that bodies were interred in coffins. And they will keep a body “fresher” than not using one. In fact, a body without the shielding of a coffin would completely deteriorate in less than ten years. Obviously there are variables to this but we can take the time as a good yardstick.

    Therefore, when a new grave was dug, all the grave-diggers would find would be bones. These would be gathered up and moved to a separate area or building called a charnel house. Here, they would be stored close together with others for all eternity. Well, that was the general wish. Now, because it was known that there was a shortage of space, graves were dug deeper, allowing more than one body to be interred. This still goes on today. Both of my parents are buried in the same plot. And it was their wish as they purchased the plot long before they died twenty years apart.

    This state of affairs could not last though. Graves now had headstones on them, coffins were the order of the day and more people kept dying. Cholera and typhoid outbreaks did not help the situation. Therefore, it was finally decided that inner London graveyards should be closed to new customers. The large out-of-town cemeteries were built and it is the system we still have today.

Mrs Basil Holmes

    But, before we finish, there’s a really quirky side to all this and it involves a writer. But, before you say it, not all writers are mad. However, this person fits the bill. Her name was Mrs Basil Holmes and she set herself a project to not only record all the church graveyards in London. Bear in mind, this is towards the latter half of the nineteenth century, she also decided to record every separate burial.

    This was a massive undertaking as at the time, there were over five hundred graveyards and goodness knows how many burials had taken place over the years in each of them. Needless to say, it took her most of her adult life to produce what she could find. In 1897, she succeeded in publishing her book entitled London Burial Grounds. I should however warn you that if you are about to dash out to buy yourself a copy, it has never been republished. Now, I wonder why that is?

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